How green are electric cars?

Everything EV | 13 October 2023

The world is full of naysayers. In 1985, the New York Times reported that laptops wouldn’t catch on. In 1890 the Washington Post announced that bicycles were just a “hot fad for fancy ladies. It’s no surprise then, that electric cars are in the cynics’ firing line these days. Their accusation? That they aren’t any better for the environment. So, in response, let’s take a look at how green EVs really are.

Comparing the carbon footprint: EV versus ICE (internal combustion engine)

Nobody’s claiming that electric cars have zero environmental impact. They do still have a carbon footprint. But how does it compare to their gas guzzler counterparts?

To get the full picture, we need to look at the carbon footprint created when the cars are manufactured, as well as the pollution they create when they’re driven.

It’s also important to note that it’s impossible to get an exact figure that covers all EVs or all gas guzzlers; there are just too many variables. How people drive, how different countries produce electricity, and the size and type of cars, to name just a few.

What we can do is look at average figures to tell us if EVs really are that green.

Manufacturing EV vs ICE

When it comes to manufacturing, the carbon footprint of a typical EV chassis and bodywork is very similar to an ICE.

The EV’s battery, however, typically adds about the same again to the EV’s carbon footprint.

So, in terms of our whole-picture carbon footprint, the EV begins life with a hefty penalty.

Driving EV vs ICE

But hold up gas guzzlers, don’t get the champers out just yet.

When the driving starts, the EV’s eco creds start shining through.

Every time you drive an ICE, you’re burning oil and pumping a constant stream of harmful smoke out of the exhaust, or tailpipe.

EVs, on the other hand, don’t burn anything. They don’t even have a tailpipe.

While a gas guzzler piles on the pollution and greenhouse gases every time it drives, the EV hums quietly and cleanly.

There are, of course, emissions associated with the electricity you use to charge up, but it’s much less than driving a gas guzzler. And if you use a green electricity tariff, or you charge your EV using solar energy, the difference gets even bigger.

The zero tailpipe emissions quickly outweigh that carbon footprint penalty created by manufacturing the battery.

The International Council on Clean Transportation has crunched the numbers. Their data shows that an average European petrol car produces 258g CO2e per km driven over its lifecycle, including the manufacturing footprint.

An average electric car charged with UK grid electricity, on the other hand, produces just 94g CO2e per km driven, over its whole lifecycle.

That’s getting on for 3 times better!

What about the battery? 

“But nobody knows what to do with the batteries when they’re done, they’ll go into landfill”, cry the naysayers.

Err, no.

To start with, EV batteries last a long time. MG reckon you can expect 10-20 years out of one.

And while it’s true there aren’t many EV battery recycling plants in the UK at the moment, that’s only because the demand isn’t there yet.

There are plenty of companies recycling lithium-ion batteries (the main type of battery used in EVs) from other devices, such as e-scooters and e-bikes.

EVs have only been selling en masse for a few years, and they’ve been lasting well. There just isn’t the supply of cooked EV batteries yet to justify major investment in a recycling industry. But when the time comes, the technology’s there to strip them down and recover the precious metals in them for re-use.

And right now, plenty of used EV batteries are finding a second life as batteries in other settings, such as home energy storage. There’s life in the old dogs yet.

Brake and tyre particulate matter

You might have heard that EVs are heavier, and therefore they shed more polluting brake and tyre dust.

There’s not much truth in that, either.

For starters, EVs aren’t that much heavier than ICE cars, especially when it comes to SUVs. And as battery technology is improving all the time, the cars are getting lighter. Manufacturers are constantly striving to improve the environmental performance of their vehicles.

Tyre manufacturers are also working on improving tyre wear; it’s an issue that affects all cars, not just EVs.

In terms of brake dust, well, EVs actually produce significantly less than gas guzzlers.

Brake dust is created when the pads where against the discs in a traditional braking setup.

But when it comes to EVs, a lot of the braking is done by regenerative braking, which is where the electric motor works in reverse to slow the car down (and it charges the battery at the same time – magic, eh?)

Brake wear is therefore much slower on an EV than a gas guzzler. And that means less – not more – brake dust pollution.

The greenest way to run your EV

The carbon footprint associated with driving your EV is heavily impacted by how you charge it.

If you want to max out on sustainability (and who doesn’t?) then you should choose a green electricity tariff for your home charging. Charging off-peak will also help balance the energy demand on the National Grid.

Choosing a home charging setup with solar panels is even better. Solar energy is zero carbon (and free!). You’ll be able to drive around smug in the knowledge that you’ve got the most cutting edge, sustainable, and wallet-friendly driving setup available.

About Powerverse

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